How Proposal 2 would change voting and elections in Michigan

The Promote the Vote 2022 coalition announces during a Lansing press conference that it has filed nearly 670,000 signatures, July 11, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

By Jon King, Michigan Advance

While it may not be getting the attention that Proposal 3, or Reproductive Freedom for All (RFFA), is receiving, supporters of Proposal 2, or Promote the Vote (PTV), believe the very nature of being able to cast a ballot is at stake on Nov. 8.

“It will make voting more secure and accessible for all eligible Michiganders,” said Nancy Wang, executive director of the nonpartisan group Voters Not Politicians (VNP), a leading partner in the Promote the Vote 2022 coalition.

Proposal 2 would amend Article II of the Michigan Constitution to expand voting rights.

The proposal’s official ballot language is: 

“A proposal to amend the state constitution to add provisions regarding elections.

This proposed constitutional amendment would: 

  • Recognize fundamental right to vote without harassing conduct;
  • Require military or overseas ballots be counted if postmarked by election day; 
  • Provide voter right to verify identity with photo ID or signed statement;
  • Provide voter right to single application to vote absentee in all elections;
  • Require state-funded absentee-ballot drop boxes, and postage for absentee applications and ballots; 
  • Provide that only election officials may conduct post-election audits; 
  • Require nine days of early in-person voting; 
  • Allow donations to fund elections, which must be disclosed; 
  • Require canvass boards certify election results based only on the official records of votes cast.” 

The coalition that placed the “Promote the Vote” initiative on the ballot included nearly 30 partner organizations, including the NAACP Michigan State Conference, Michigan League for Conservation Voters and Michigan Farmers Union.

The effort submitted 669,972 signatures to the state Bureau of Elections, almost 250,000 more than were required.

Despite that broad show of support, it had to be ordered onto the ballot in September by the Michigan Supreme Court after the Board of State Canvassers deadlocked along party lines on whether to certify it.

Proponents of Proposal 2 held a press conference last week led by Chris Thomas, who spent 36 years as Michigan’s director of elections, serving under both Republican and Democratic secretaries of state. He is now a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Democracy Project.

“There’s nothing new or novel about this proposal that isn’t being done around the country today. We’ve invented nothing here,” Thomas said.

The measure builds off 2018’s Proposal 3, which passed by a more than 2 to 1 margin. It amended the Michigan Constitution to add eight policies, including automatic voter registration, no-excuse absentee voting, same-day voter registration, and straight-ticket voting.

Wang told the Michigan Advance despite the success of that effort, additional protections are necessary.

“Proposal 2 increases election security by enshrining Michigan’s current effective voter ID law into our state Constitution, and will ensure that voters verify their identity before their vote is counted, whether voting in person or by absentee ballot,” she said. “In fact, Proposal 2 requires local clerks to verify the identity of an absentee voter twice: First, on the application for an absentee ballot or to join the mail voter list, and second on each and every absentee ballot.”

However, the very issue of voter identification is what opponents of the measure, which include the Michigan Republican Party, are focusing on in their efforts to defeat Proposal 2.

Three former Michigan Secretaries of State, all Republicans, earlier this month announced their objections to the ballot measure. Candice Miller, Terri Lynn Land, and Ruth Johnson each served two terms as the state’s chief election official, holding the office between them for 24 years prior to the 2018 election of current Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat.

Benson is facing a reelection challenge Nov. 8 from Republican Kristina Karamo. 

Miller, Land and Johnson dispute Proposal 2 will strengthen election security and say, instead, it will increase the chances for fraud.

“This is a dangerous proposal,” said Johnson (R-Holly), who is now a state senator and chair of the Senate Elections Committee. “Proposal 2 would prohibit us from ever requiring photo-ID to vote in Michigan.”

Currently, voters are required to present a valid photo ID or other authorized identification card when they cast a ballot, although if they don’t have one, they can still vote after signing an affidavit of identity. 

Forging that affidavit is a felony punishable by up to four years in prison and up to a $2,000 fine.

In 2021, the GOP-led Legislature put forward a package of bills that, while providing free state ID cards to any eligible resident who needed one, would then have required every voter to present a photo-ID every time they voted. 

They also would have eliminated the option for voters to submit an affidavit attesting to their identity when attempting to vote without a state issued ID.

If passed, Proposal 2 would retain the affidavit option and make it permanent by placing it in the state Constitution.

The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit public policy institute, has caller strict Voter ID laws, in which no affidavit option is provided, as a form of voter suppression. 

“As many as 11 percent of eligible voters do not have the kind of ID that is required by states with strict ID requirements, and that percentage is even higher among seniors, minorities, people with disabilities, low-income voters, and students,” states the center’s website.

2018 study of affidavit filers who voted in Michigan’s 2016 elections indicated non-white voters were between 2.5 and 6 times more likely than white voters to lack photo ID and that “physical limitations may be a common variable causing people to lack photo identification and to vote absentee.”

At the time, Benson said the 2021 legislation restricted citizens’ voting rights, harmed election administration and “demonstrated a lack of knowledge of existing procedure and law.” 

The bills also would have prohibited the Michigan secretary of state from making absentee ballot applications available online, banned clerks from supplying prepaid return postage for absentee ballots as well as from counting absentee ballots in the weeks before an election. They also would have banned the use of ballot drop boxes on Election Day.

Most of the legislation was later vetoed by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Other points of contention are provisions in the proposal to only require a single application for an absentee ballot and to allow non-governmental funding for election administration.

Miller, who now serves as GOP Macomb County Public Works commissioner, says she is opposed to the absentee ballot provision because, “Voters who have moved or died would be mailed ballots under this system and that is not a good idea.”

Proposal 2, however, contains multiple provisions to police the absentee voter list, including removing names of voters who have not voted in six years, as well as enabling election officials to remove names of voters who have moved out of state or failed to provide an updated voter registration address.

Despite that, the former secretaries all insist that the mass mailing of absentee ballots each election would open up new opportunities for fraud, citing an estimate that at least 800,000 absentee ballot applications sent out by Benson in 2020 “were sent to individuals who were not eligible to vote largely because they had moved or died.”

However, Politifact labeled that claim as misleading, noting that it was merely an estimate Johnson had made and quoted Tracy Wimmer, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office, who said it was not “hard data or fact,” and that no one who was not qualified to vote received an application. 

“They may have been on the inactive voter list, but those people are still eligible to vote,” she said.

There’s nothing new or novel about this proposal that isn’t being done around the country today. We’ve invented nothing here.

Chris Thomas, who spent 36 years as Michigan’s director of elections, and supports Proposal 2

Wang told the Advance that facts have to take precedence over politics when it comes to the essentials of democracy.

“Voters we’re talking to overwhelmingly agree that the fundamental right to have our vote counted, regardless of where we live or who we vote for, is essential to our democracy, so it’s discouraging to see former state election officials more concerned with pleasing their party base than supporting modern, secure, and accessible voting for all eligible Michiganders.” she said.

As to the outside funding of elections, Land, who currently sits on the Wayne State University Board of Governors, says allowing non-government, third-parties to fund elections could result in an imbalance of resources depending on which communities attract such funding.

“People want fair and impartial elections and allowing special interest groups to pay for them is 100% in conflict with that,” said Land.

If passed, the proposal would allow municipalities to voluntarily accept charitable donations and contributions to conduct and administer elections. However, they would need to be publicly disclosed and could not come from foreign sources.

On that point, opponents of the measure say election administration is an inherent government function and opening up funding by outside groups can have unintended consequences.

Jamie Roe is the spokesperson for Secure MI Vote, a Republican-sponsored initiative that has launched a campaign asking voters to reject Proposal 2. 

“This provision is troubling because it enshrines into the Constitution a right for special interests and corporate interests to pick and choose which areas of election administration they believe support their interests,” said Roe. “That is wrong. The proponents are opening a Pandora’s box because not only would it allow George Soros or Mark Zuckerberg to provide millions to their favorite aspects of election administration, but also would provide that same right to the NRA, Right to Life, Betsy DeVos or even Donald Trump. We believe all special interests should not be involved in election administration, period.”

Secure MI Vote was also behind a petition drive earlier this year. While it missed the deadline to get on the 2022 ballot, it could still be approved by the Legislature, which is currently GOP-controlled,  leaving Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — who opposes the initiative — powerless to veto it.

That measure would impose restrictive voter ID regulations for in-person voting while prohibiting qualified caretakers from returning absentee ballots, which advocates say would discriminate against disabled voters.

However, if Proposal 2 passes on Nov. 8, it would invalidate the Secure MI Vote effort, which the group acknowledges on their website.

“If this initiative succeeds, it will undo anything we ever hoped to accomplish with the Secure MI Vote initiative,” it states.

The decision awaiting voters on Nov. 8 was summarized this way by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, a nonprofit public affairs research organization, in its analysis:

“The primary issue for voters to consider is whether the totality of policy preferences advocated by the proponents of Promote the Vote 2022 should be enshrined in the state constitution,” it stated. “Or, given the fact that the Michigan Constitution provides the legislature with the responsibility to regulate the ‘time, place and manner’ of all elections, should these policy preferences be left to the legislative arena and dealt with through statutory law rather than inclusion in the state constitution.”

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